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Load-shedding sees SITA’s diesel costs balloon to R61m

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 17 May 2023

The Department of Communications and Digital Technologies’ (DCDT’s) entities have all been hard-hit by the rolling power cuts, but not as much as the State IT Agency (SITA).

Government’s IT procurement arm has seen diesel replenishment costs shoot up from R8.9 million in 2022, to R60.8 million so far in 2023, representing a 246% year-on-year increase.

This was revealed by Omega Shelembe, deputy director-general (DG) responsible for state-owned enterprise oversight at the DCDT.

Including SITA, the DCDT exercises oversight over Broadband Infraco (BBI), Sentech, NEMISA, the Independent Communications Authority of SA, SABC, South African Post Office, the Film and Publications Board and the Universal Service and Access Agency of SA.

Yesterday, the department briefed Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Communications on the additional costs its entities have been incurring due to infrastructure investment and maintenance and equipment repairs because of the country’s power constraints.

Shelembe also told the committee a number of services provided by the entities are affected by load-shedding, including SASSA grant payment systems, mail sorting, SABC broadcasting channels, broadband services and mobile network operator (MNO) quality-of-service.

For SITA, the unplanned high levels of load-shedding result in “forced” irregular expenditure to supplement diesel supply to meet contracted ICT service delivery, he stated.

In addition, generators, uninterruptable power supply and switch-gear equipment have been negatively impacted.

He noted vandalism and theft of infrastructure at industry partners supporting connectivity to government’s IT systems also present a challenge. This is fuelled by the increase in demand for batteries used for backup power.

“SITA is in the process of finalising the feasibility of alternative energy solutions, such as solar. The outcomes of this analysis will propose solutions to follow the relevant processes of approval and budget allocations for implementation in the future.

“Despite the escalated and unpredictable schedules of Eskom’s load-shedding, SITA’s backup power infrastructure has proven to be highly-resilient in providing business continuity and ensuring availability of SITA-owned and managed infrastructure.”

Ahead of the briefing, DCDT acting DG Nonkqubela Jordan-Dyani noted load-shedding’s adverse impact, especially on the ICT sector. She pointed out that not only do the DCDT’s entities have to deal with load-shedding disruptions, there is also the issue of vandalism on key infrastructure.

“We are working with government departments to ensure critical service space remains protected, including protection of our entities, specifically SITA as well as BBI data centres, to avert critical services from disruptions.”

Jordan-Dyani said the country’s broadcasting digital migration project has also been impacted by load-shedding, in as far as installations are concerned. For example, installers find it difficult to test set-top boxes when the electricity is off in a household.

Broadband connectivity equipment and systems that are down due to power cuts also hinder the provision of services.

Jordan-Dyani said the department is engaging with the relevant authorities to mitigate some of these challenges.

SITA isn’t the only government entity bleeding money in attempts to keep some sites operational during rolling blackouts.

In March, state signal distributor Sentech revealed the steep rise in diesel costs between 2022 and 2023 resulted in it spending more than R2 million per month to cope during load-shedding.

Similarly, the Department of Home Affairs indicated SA’s power supply crisis is adding to its long-term, ongoing IT system downtime woes.

Omega Shelembe, deputy director-general at the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies responsible for SOE oversight.
Omega Shelembe, deputy director-general at the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies responsible for SOE oversight.

Meanwhile, the Association of Comms and Technology (ACT) yesterday issued a statement calling for urgent regulatory and government action on the load-shedding crisis.

ACT is an ICT industry association whose members are MNOs: Vodacom, MTN, Cell C and Rain.

In a statement, ACT says it is deeply concerned about the worsening status of load-shedding in the country.

It believes the impact of load-shedding on an already hard-hit ICT sector is likely to worsen, given that power cuts become more severe during the colder months.

“This will make it increasingly difficult for mobile network operators to keep people and businesses connected – despite having made substantial investments in backup power solutions to improve network resilience during load-shedding.

“Naturally, these investments could have been better spent on accelerating rural coverage, fast-tracking 5G adoption and further addressing the cost to communicate in South Africa.”

To stop further funds being diverted from their intended purpose, ACT points out it is crucial that government and regulators take immediate and effective action to address the power crisis, network security and the economic sabotage of physical infrastructure, by outlining a comprehensive plan to address the problem.

It proposes the following steps:

  • Consider the provision of a diesel rebate to ensure the high cost of diesel does not unduly burden the sector's commercial operations. Its members have been forced to reallocate their annual expenditure to deal with load-shedding, which is unsustainable in the long-term given the high cost of diesel, it says.
  • Compel the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition to urgently publish the block exemptions regulations to allow competitors to coordinate on finding solutions to the load-shedding crisis, such as collaborating on using common power sources and sharing security on co-located sites.
  • Designate the industry in terms of the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act 8 of 2019, and acknowledge its importance as a national strategic asset on which society heavily relies.
  • Increase penalties for economic sabotage of physical infrastructure, including fines and prison sentences, to deter individuals and organisations from engaging in such activities.
  • Provide regulatory relief by allowing MNOs to temporarily increase their network capacity through the provision of temporal spectrum, and relaxing regulatory obligations that are arduous to comply with in the current environment.
  • Afford greater warning when there will be significant changes in load-shedding stages, so that operators are able to better plan logistically and effectively mobilise resources, such as generators.
  • Steer the ICT sector with an effective and actionable plan to mitigate the power challenge.